Pan4ColumnsThere is a good, though not excellent, short story hidden somewhere in the four hundred pages of A. M. Homes’s The Unfolding ... But on balance, The Unfolding is depressingly shallow, arriving too late and with too little intelligence, humor, wit, or insight to be useful or entertaining ... The plot is simple ... The structure—dilating and contracting across a narrow band of time—works best in subtly paralleling personal and familial breakdowns with national upheaval, but at its worst, the form makes this novel feel interminable ... Homes is dedicated to the idea of these men as so pickled by their own vice and privilege that there’s not an intelligent thought to be found among them. They remain static in their grumbling and their vague schemes, which prevents the irony from deepening or sharpening its critique. What ought to be a central driver of the plot or the evolution of the novel’s themes becomes an inert gimmick ... Homes trades away her characters’ convictions and depth for attempted comedic effect. No contrast. No pathos. These men are hollow, which makes the story itself hollow ... Homes for some reason describes any surface or object that comes into contact with her characters as though she were writing about the contours of the human soul. Do we need to know what the taxi seats feel like? ... I was bored by this book. By its lazy stances, its lax politics, and its rote writing.
RaveThe New York TimesThe novella’s strange, shifting structure lends \'Bonsai\' a playful quality...The whole story feels ruled by a dream logic, filled with coincidences and ghostly echoes...There’s a way that such coincidences might make a story feel silly or clumsy, as though they were lesions on reality or cheap effects...But I did not find that to be the case in \'Bonsai\'...Part of this is because of Zambra’s mastery of tone and timing, but more than anything, it’s because of the offhand yet casual way Zambra presents these coincidences — there’s a little surprise, but nothing too fussy, nothing made too much of... There’s a dreamy associative quality of the novella that made it feel true and beautiful and moving.
Banana Yoshimoto tr. Asa Yoneda
RaveNew York Times Book Review... strange, melancholy and beautiful ... In Mama! — one of the most brilliant stories I’ve ever read — Mimi, a publishing company employee, is poisoned by a disgruntled co-worker ... Yoshimoto’s lonely women have more in common with the bachelor characters of, say, Bernard Malamud or Leonard Michaels or Haruki Murakami. They also resemble, in their awkward but striking agency, the characters of Alice Munro’s best short stories about young womanhood, by turns comedic, sad and aching for connection ... The spiky fictions of Anglophone literature of the past decade — staked on the idea of passivity as agency within a violent, dystopian, capitalist hellscape — are cutting and observant; but sometimes they leave the reader wondering: When can books be warm again? When can we have feelings again? Yoshimoto’s protagonists go out and act, they feel, they express, even if only to themselves. Even at their loneliest, these characters are a part of something, whether a relationship, a friendship, a family, a workplace, a society, a world ... These stories made me believe again that it was possible to write honestly, rigorously, morally, about the material reality of characters; to write toward human warmth as a reaffirmation of the bonds that tie us together. This is a supremely hopeful book, one that feels important because it shows that happiness, while not always easy, is still a subject worthy of art.
MixedNew York Times Book ReviewPaul, the protagonist of Teddy Wayne’s new novel, The Great Man Theory, is an aggrieved Everyman who finds contemporary life unsatisfying ... I loved him immediately. Cranky characters often make for interesting novels, after all ... Paul experiences a series of semi-comic but escalating mishaps that get much less funny as the novel goes on ... Wayne handles the dissolution of Paul’s life with a wry irony ... Wayne turns the smug woundedness of the contemporary liberal into an amusing social comedy ... In the case of The Great Man Theory, the final turn to melodrama merely feels contrived and false. It renders the novel less smart, less engaging, less human. Wayne had the option to write a real novel about frustrated contemporary masculinity and the ways that white liberal men are also being corrupted by the internet and their lingering sense of entitlement. Instead, what readers will find at the conclusion of The Great Man Theory is that its author has been laughing at them and his characters the entire time. An enraging end to an almost great but ultimately crude novel.
Karen Joy Fowler
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewIt’s a dizzying blitz of events and places, each of which might serve as the seed of another novel. Through its first half, Booth is—like almost any other family saga published in the last decade or so—both slickly narrative and morbidly lyrical ... There are slightly folksy descriptions of farm life—chores, carrying babies—punctuated by bursts of brilliant writing that briefly lift this novel above its predictable rhythms ... Booth is, in some sense, a chronicle of Johnny’s transformation. It’s also an indictment of the very idea of decent white people. I am sympathetic to this idea, but I found it rather a boring premise for a novel ... Fowler’s family saga is so full of summarized scenes that there’s scarcely any room for probing interiority, resulting in a psychologically and philosophically thin account of family life ... the characters sound like naïve children their whole lives. There are no depths, no shadows, no surprises. The closest this novel comes to insight is to portray the naïveté with which the good white Booth children say mildly clueless things about the effect of slavery on the Black family they’ve grown up with on the farm. Instead of insight, Fowler traffics in images and scenes, gestures, little motifs. In some sense, the novel is devoid of any signs of intelligent life at all. Yet Fowler is a fine writer ... I sat up straight every time one of the Booth men took to the stage to perform. Nevertheless, Booth has all the bite of a children’s story. It was ultimately too amiable to be of much comfort or much use.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, tr. Martin Aitken
RaveThe New YorkerI read The Morning Star compulsively, and stayed awake all night after finishing it. I left the novel feeling as I often did after watching a great scary movie as a kid—totally convinced that whatever evil, implausible thing I had just witnessed on the screen awaited me in the next room. Not that this novel offers horror in the conventional sense. Under the mysterious sign in the sky, people go about the sort of stifled, frustrated lives that Knausgaard has made his domain: the creatively blocked, the spiritually starving, the terrifyingly sensitive, the queasily realistic failures ... a secular, superstitious novel in the spirit of Bolaño’s 2666 or The Savage Detectives. The discursive sprawl of the story is trussed up by the matrix of interpersonal connections, giving it form even as the characters rationalize away how spooked they feel by the events that unfold across the two strange days ... The Morning Star is attuned to the uncanny ... Death, like the astronomical object that haunts The Morning Star, hangs over you while shining its strange light. What you do is what all of us must do, which is learn to live with it.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... the arid, intense melancholy of a Hopper painting ... particularly passages written in Eileen’s voice, Rooney sheds the stiff pelt of scene-building and attains a clarity reminiscent of Rachel Cusk’s in her Outline trilogy ... is carefully formless and its characters are fluent in our lingua franca of systemic collapse, that neoliberal patter of learned helplessness in the face of larger capital and labor systems ... kind of a vibey omniscience that proceeds by way of spare descriptions. Rooney writes scenes as though she had to type them out on a TI-89. Nouns and verbs. This can be lovely, as when she describes empty rooms or the touch of someone’s hand on a wrist. Her writing about sex is taut and direct. It’s a narrative style I associate with the films of Andrew Haigh and Joanna Hogg, two great visual poets of social anxiety and reticence ... Rooney’s dialogue is frequently perfect, so perfect that it occasionally turns into a flaw. That is, Rooney’s characters speak as though they’re in a ’90s rom-com or else the adaptation of an Evelyn Waugh novel ... at times it feels like a hammy line reading. Much like their compatriots—narrators from novels by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Andrew Martin—Rooney’s characters chatter about the pointlessness of feeling that the world is too far gone to do anything about even as they seem to agree that our problems tower high above our heads ... In my less charitable moments, it felt as though we’ve reached a point in our culture where the pinnacle of moral rigor in the novel form is an overwhelmed white woman in a major urban center sighing and having a thought about the warming planet or the existence of refugees ... I found the novel’s defensiveness about the moral dubiousness of its aesthetic project kind of charming, but also frustrating. Yet, for all that, Beautiful World, Where Are You is Rooney’s best novel yet. Funny and smart, full of sex and love and people doing their best to connect.
Thora Hjorleifsdottir, tr. Meg Matich
RaveVulture[A] brilliantly uneasy new novel ... Hjörleifsdóttir has a poet’s sense of compression and scale, but a prosaic unwriterliness ... There is a mordant humor here. One feels, around Lilja’s earnestness, the author’s impeccable timing ... Magma is profane, funny, and uncomfortably honest about what happens when we substitute someone’s image of us for self-knowledge.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"In an era whose ascendant short-story practitioners lean into high-concept experiments of genre and form, Emma Cline represents something of a throwback. The 10 stories that constitute her first collection, Daddy, are almost classical in structure—you won’t find a fragmentary collage, list or screenplay among them. Though she’s not one for a sudden, curious departure of voice or dissolution of the fourth wall, Cline has an unnerving narrative proprioception, and her stories have the clean, bright lines of modernist architecture ... As for her style, she seems to eschew the telegraphic mode made popular by writers like Sally Rooney or Rachel Cusk for something at once direct and musical. Cline’s idiom is earnestness punctuated by millennial cool—but nothing too fussy, everything in just the right place ... The aesthetic pleasure of Cline’s writing is anesthetizing. So much so that one could conceivably read these stories with the same drugged passivity with which one shuffles through a lifestyle catalog. But that would be a mistake ... Cline is an astonishingly gifted stylist, but it is her piercing understanding of modern humiliation that makes these stories vibrate with life ... the characters shift uncomfortably through the beautifully appointed shoe box dioramas of their lives, aware at once of their own insignificance and also of their desire for prominence. They ask if anything matters as though nothing does, and yet hope to be contradicted. But perhaps we all do. Perhaps, in these brilliant stories, that is the most daring and human thing of all.\
RaveElectric LiteratureIt is difficult to guess how these stories end or to classify them as funny or sad, uplifting or depressing, smart or silly, etc. The truth is that each of these stories is all of those things and much more ... The way that Beach has used his remarkable, clear voice to fully render weather and architecture and nature, has made it at once invisible and yet so striking.